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  • Total War and the American Civil War ReconsideredThe End of an Outdated “Master Narrative”
  • Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh (bio)

Despite the transnational turn in American history, American historians still tend to put our national history at the center of world history, which exaggerates both our virtues and vices.1 Harsh critiques of Civil War violence as harbingers of twentieth-century brutality share with Whiggish narratives the unproven assumption that the American Civil War forged a fulcrum point not just for American history, but for the modern world.2 Until recently, most military historians have generally seen the Civil War as the opening chapter of what historian Roger Chickering has called a “master narrative,” in which modern weapons, combined with the mass mobilization of society, prolonged the war, encouraged “strategic stalemate,” and engulfed civilians politically and military. This narrative places the Civil War at a crucial way station in a new era of industrial violence that inexorably leads to Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and a doomed present. From this perspective, the “total wars” of the twentieth century mark an apex of violence that had its wellsprings in the American Civil War.3 This grand story has seriously distorted Civil War scholarship. It feeds into a narrative of American exceptionalism that places the Civil War–era United States at a pivot point of world history culminating in the “American Century.” It both exaggerates American influence on later events and obscures some of the most important aspects of Civil War violence, especially the war’s connection to the demise of chattel slavery and its particular combination of lethality and limitation.4

To use one straightforward measure, the butcher’s bill of the Napoleonic period calls into question the common assumption among Americanists, recently expressed by Drew Gilpin Faust, that the Civil War “introduced a level of carnage that foreshadowed the wars of the century to come.”5 For example, at the climactic “Battle of Nations” at Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon commanded 177,000 men, while the Allied forces mustered over 250,000 [End Page 394] in opposition, excluding 140,000 nearby reinforcements. The French suffered 68,000 casualties, and the Allies lost at least 50,000 men. These totals exceeded the size of some entire Civil War field armies.6 Even the epic battle of Gettysburg saw 30,100 Federal and 27,125 Confederate casualties during the entire campaign, out of 112,700 deployed personnel in the Army of the Potomac and about 80,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia.7 To put this another way, the initial Allied forces at Leipzig outnumbered both Union and Confederate armies combined, while French casualties alone exceeded the sum of both American armies’ losses.

Furthermore, if the cultural and political turn toward total war had begun during the French Revolution, as is argued by David Bell, then the Civil War’s place in the master narrative only further weakens.8 This narrative answered a real need to explain the Civil War’s increasing levels of violence, but it also obscured the limits placed on Civil War violence by a wide variety of actors and forces, and the historical significance of those limits. It also served as perhaps the most important intersection of military and social history in Civil War studies, because it connected military operations with important social changes, including emancipation, changing gender roles, the mobilization of the home front, and important cultural changes, while still placing the Civil War at a crossroads of world history.9 The narrative remains influential and resilient, even as some historians such as Chickering have raised serious questions about its premises.

American historians can also find useful models and points of comparison in recent work by European historians to better understand the dynamics of Civil War violence. Bell’s analysis of how the Napoleonic experience transformed Enlightenment reform into a romantic glorification of violence may help explain the inseparable connections among emancipation, nationalism, and state violence during the Civil War. Isabel Hull’s work on the army of Imperial Germany provides a methodological model for military and nonmilitary historians alike. Hull chronicles how a specific military culture elevated violence into an irrational end in itself and created total...


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pp. 394-408
Launched on MUSE
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